It’s Complicated: DJs, Appropriation, and a Whole Host of Other Ish

by Former Special Correspondent Wendi Muse


I’ve been following Diplo for some time, observing his work with appreciation, other times disappointment, and sometimes both at once. Back in the early days, when he was throwing warehouse parties in Philly, and later profiling DJs from around the world on his Mad Decent podcast (now a full-on record label and official site), Wesley Pentz was brazenly admitting to pirate-everything, right down to the clandestinely operated podcast itself. There was something refreshing and almost alluring about the nature of backpacking around the world with a passport and a tape recorder. Often considered a modern-day, musical Columbus, though his reputation for “discovering” new musical worlds would be one that would soon bite him where the sun doesn’t shine, Diplo made a name for himself by appropriating a variety of music and presenting it all with chameleon-like efficiency.

Some of you may know him for his production work on MIA’s first, albeit bootleg, album Piracy Funds Terrorism, a mashed up, remixed set of tracks which would later find themselves cleaned-up and repackaged on the official studio album Arular, or later for the Clash and Wreckx-n-Effect sampling “Paper Planes.”

However, he ultimate climax in Diplo’s fame has been in recent years, arguably months, with his promotion for Blackberry…

…and his collaborative work with UK producer Switch (producer for M.I.A. and Santigold) for the dancehall outfit Major Lazer.

But this month, Diplo’s spike in popularity came from a place slightly removed from his music by way of scathing criticism by a DJ named Iceberg Venus X. You see, much like other forms of appropriation (see: imperialism, colonialism, and popular use of cultural artifacts), a backlash always follows. The question of whether or not Diplo’s methods are ethical aside, the process is usually the same:

    1. musical genre or artist relatively unknown in the United States (save small immigrant groups still connected to the homeland or marginalized American communities of color) gets samples or featured in one of Diplo’s live sets, recorded mixes, podcasts, or via the Mad Decent blog (sometimes without the artist’s knowledge, though this is a common practice in DJ culture and not exclusive to Diplo)

    2. said artist might be included as a headliner to the show of a more popular Mad Decent artist when applicable

    3. genre and the artists performing it gain popularity as a result of their association with Diplo/Mad Decent

    4. Diplo picks up a new genre/artist and the previous artist, often still unsigned, is left to continue self-promoting

Iceberg Venus X, a Latina lesbian DJ who is one of the founders of the Ghe20 g0th1k party in Brooklyn opened for Maluca’s (a NY-based, Dominican-American female singer signed to Mad Decent) tour, took issue when she noticed the same thing happening in her case (notably Diplo’s recording a segment of Iceberg Venus X’s live set). But instead of addressing the issue directly with Diplo and the Mad Decent camp, she used Twitter to put him on blast, a move that cheapened her grievances, but ultimately resulted in a very public questioning of Diplo’s methods.

After a series of Twitter posts full of MC battle-style jabs, the vitriol reached a crescendo with other friends and members of Iceberg Venus X’s crew joining in the fight and, to put the icing on the cake, the fight was picked up and beaten like a dead horse by the Fader and XLR8R (both popular electronic/alt music mag). Funny enough, the newspiece from the latter, which apparently evoked Angela Davis in some dark humor-riddled, ironic attempt to discredit Iceberg Venus X, has gone missing.*

After reading the Twitter fight, I thought that using the social networking platform as a means to address the issue was a bit ill advised, but it was simply a reminder as to who holds the power and purse strings in such a situation. And many already know, rarely do underground DJs, and even less so underground DJs of marginalized groups (read: class, color, nationality, gender identity, sexuality outside of the dominant culture-defined norm). When identity politics are at play, the process gets muddier, particularly within a musical subculture that relies quite heavily on sampling, borrowing, lifting, and editing beats until they are damn near unrecognizable.

Despite Diplo’s humble upbringing, which he cites in his twitter fight (and quite often when his extracting of foreign music is questioned), his whiteness still lends itself to fortifying his legitimacy as an ambassador in the music world. But it also begs the question of whether or not his methods would be scrutinized at all were he from a different country, a person of color, or from a more visibly marginalized community? Much like any other art culture, is the DJ community subject to the same values as other mainstream industries, particularly as electronic music and it many subgenres gain increasing popularity in the US, despite its rogue beginnings?

*Ed Note: We recreated the piece here. – LDP

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  • Pingback: Who Runs The World? « Prevalent Culture()

  • G G

    it’s hardstyle yo, go to a brooklyn rave any weekend to hear this all night lol

  • Pingback: Diplo & Cultural Appropriation: Trendy Imperialism « The Rambling Feminist()

  • so_treu

    I WAS JUST TALKING ABOUT THIS WITH MY FRIEND YESTERDAY. specifically, Maluca is awesome, right? that song “El Tigaraso” is the bomb dot com. but that shit came out in 2009. why is it 2011 and she has yet to have an album released (she did have a mixtape, but it was for free download)? why is Diplo on my TV, while she’s applying for foodstamps? and after the way he did M.I.A., especially in that NYT article, i was done with him. it’s interesting how he gets hostile with folks who tell him that they don’t need him, point blank.

    dood’s whiteness has *been* showing.

    • diplo

      my white ness is showing. been tryin to get a tan but i mean its still technically the winter.. maluca is my girl for a long time. i just produced her latest song as well. – i want to put a record out from her but its just not ready yet and shes working on other things…. but you tell me .. what would you guys have me do .. seeing that you object to my doing this and that.. let me know what should i be doing. because all i want is for your approval. and in the NYtimes i didnt say anything that wasnt true. i objected to when MIA mixes politics with her music but made no good examples and then made no good music, you see if mia was white.. would u even give her any attention, its funny to hear people defend her, i was in fact not given writing credits throughout her record as well as my work being sabotaged by her for the last 3 years.. but yet i live another day to try and make and record music that i love.. i cant help the music that im attracted to or that im good at it.. im lucky because im never really good at anything else

      • Retail DJ

        just to clarify, in my previous piece, i recognize you as the producer of Piracy Funds Terrorism. i have been following you, mad decent, and affiliated DJs and performers, including those who are signed to mad decent and those who are not, but whom you promote on the side via headlining and mix play.

        as someone who works with independent djs, i fully understand the record release process and how much of a hassle it is, and i find that you are conflating a) my article, b) latoya’s article, and c) the comments into the same criticism when they technically are not. my questioning comes from a place of trying to understand where we draw the line in sampling without royalties or promoting without funding and, additionally (and this is something i chose not to cover in this piece), sexism within the underground electronic music scene that mirrors that of major label industries. the BRO culture of the scene continues, with or without you, but you, as one of the most popular american djs, particularly one covering global dance music of various genres, are a posterchild and, quite frankly, a role model to many up and coming djs and producers who want to follow in your footsteps.

        at this point, though it’s a lot of pressure, there may be a need to step back and recognize what you’re doing that could be jeopardizing the careers and livelihood of the artists with whom you collaborate, even if on a superficial level, and what your name means to a lot of people out there who look up to you. it seems that you want to keep living out the globetrotting, i’m just like you, backpacking dj/interviewer image, but it’s beyond that now. you have more exposure and you have to recognize what that all means and how it affects others, particularly those who are not charged with the same privilege as you. in your being a white male, your ideas, opinions, and views are world music are often seen as more legitimate than if, say, a producer/dj of a marginalized group were to promote the music themselves. whether you like it or not, that’s how our world works are present.

        your work on favela on blast and heaps decent are appreciated, and again, recognized in my previous work, but i find that you approach has taken a turning point. it is one thing to help others and another to help others empower themselves. it seems that some artists are questioning the latter of those two, and whether or not the end result, despite your seemingly genuine motivation, is working.

        • Diplomaddecent

          a)first of all — please allow my comments in your previous story.. i see you have censored me

          b) your arguments are becoming homogenized…
          I do understand how im guilty of your comment
          >being a white male, your ideas, opinions, and views are world music are often seen as more legitimate than if, say, a producer/dj of a marginalized group were to promote the music is one thing to help others and another to help others empower themselves. it seems that some artists are questioning the latter of those two, and whether or not the end result, despite your seemingly genuine motivation, is working. <

          not sure why you would bring this up considering that doing anything at all is a step in the right direction.. how many of you journalists have done social work or created non for profit organizations that are selfsustaining – (raises hand)

          • Anonymous

            Read the comments moderation policy and realize where you are – this isn’t a normal blog, most of us aren’t journalists, and if you were anywhere close to the person you pretend to be, you’d be able to argue these dynamics better than we can.

            If you’re spending 90% of your day promoting other folks, then you would know the issues facing artists that are trying to break into the American mainstream. You would realize critiquing a system of colonialism and white supremacy, which has a five century history behind it, is different than pointing to the man of the hour. Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, the same system will be in play. You may or may not be.

            So our critiques are not about you personally, though they use your work as a way to examine the idea of imperialism through culture and music, and the way in which global inequalities manifest even on an artist to artist level. Again, if you cared as much as you say you do, none of this should have been a shocker – it’s a function of the same problem where American pop culture is one of our top exports, but global popularity will not translate into a crossover here, as artists like BoA, Rain, and the Wonder Girls all found out over the past few years. It’s the reason why you can hear English sprinkled into tracks across the globe, but if a song crosses over it has to be completely remade in English.

            It’s a system Diplo. A huge, cthulhu-like beast that feeds on a lot of different things to work right. If it wasn’t a system, we wouldn’t have whole tags dedicated to everything from Hipsters at Cochella to Hip Hop Culture in Japan.

            And what I find it hard to believe is that someone as immersed in global culture as you are doesn’t seem to have a grasp on these very basic dynamics.

  • tea

    I guess the weirdness isn’t just racist/appropriating overtones and patriarchal undertones, here’s Diplos “Top 50 hot girl Tumblrs”

    sample commentary:
    “needs more naked i think”
    “needs more sexy pics i think”
    “i wish it had naked people tho”
    “girl has great cleavage and totaly hot pics of other amazing cute girls butts so this one is win win ”
    ” this girl i slept with a few times so i had to include her.. #just kidding! ”

    WHAT. I guess reading all that Galeano wasn’t all that edifying after all.

  • Retail DJ

    i should add – there was a recent feature on Diplo in Bust magazine…and I was just floored, especially considering diplo’s reputation

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